"I'd be very disappointed if we’re not into space with a test flight by the end of the year,” said Richard Branson in April 2017, when asked about the goals of his company, Virgin Galactic.1
The serial entrepreneur is not alone in viewing space as the final frontier for business: Silicon Valley billionaires are pursuing everything from sub-orbital passenger jaunts to Mars colonization. In Asia, Japan’s PD Aerospace and China’s Kuang-Chi Science are exploring similar possi-bilities. Shuji Ogawa, CEO of PD Aerospace, said: “Space tourism is a universal dream, not only for the Japanese but for all people.” 2
Meanwhile, the world’s space agencies are continuing their explora-tion missions. The International Space Station is a permanent orbital science lab and recent probes have landed on comets, navigated the surface of Mars and investigated Saturn’s rings. This is perhaps the most exciting period for humankind’s study of space for 40 years.
To make these missions possible, spacecraft need robust, high perfor-mance, long life and reliable batteries that provide power in the most inhos-pitable conditions. Saft first made a battery for a satellite in 1966 and will be working on some of the biggest space programs of the coming years.
In 2020, the European Space Agency (ESA) will launch Euclid, on a six-year mission to learn more about dark energy and dark matter, which the ESA says, “pose some of the most important questions in funda-mental physics today.3 Euclid, which will conduct measure-ments that allow it, effectively, to see what the universe looked like 10 billion years ago, should help scientists to understand more about what dark energy and dark matter are and how they work.
Also launching in 2020 is the ExoMars Rover, which will reach the Red Planet in 2021 and hunt for signs of life. 4 Next year, the ESA expects to launch CHEOPS (Characterizing Exoplanet Satellite), which will gather more information about the planets that we already know are orbiting distant stars.5
Amazon, the internet retailer, has plenty of experience in sending packages around the world, but its founder, Jeff Bezos, has set his sights on space. A rocket from his company, Blue Origin, will launch a satellite into geostationary orbit by 2022. Eventually, Blue Origin will take passengers.
“The long-term vision is millions of people living and working in space,” Mr Bezos told a conference in March 2017. The target, he said, is to “get to a place ultimately where it is much more like commercial airlines”. 6
As mentioned above, Blue Origin will face competition from the likes of Virgin Galactic, PD Aerospace and SpaceX. The biggest challenge remains safety: some early pioneers might be willing to accept a high level of risk, but a passenger service will not be in busi-ness for long without an impeccable safety record.
Besides safety, consistency and reliability are vital for space missions – and that, of course, applies to the batteries that power them. “Space batteries have to cope with extreme temperatures – anything from -20°C to+50°C,” says Annie Sennet, executive vice president, Saft Space & Defense.
“They need to be able to withstand the vibrations at launch and, in some cases, the impact of landing. They must handle huge amounts of radiation and, of course, they cannot fail. Space batteries undergo three-to four-times as much testing as normal batteries.”
Satellites have batteries that are charged when sunlight is available and provide power when it isn’t. Landers and probes require batteries that can stay dormant for a long time while the vehicle travels to its destination and then reliably provide power when it is needed.
The ExoMars Rover is a particular challenge. The battery has to be completely sterile because we absolutely cannot introduce new bacteria to Mars. We always use a clean room for final battery assembly, but this battery is being put together in what is effectively a clean room within a clean room.Annie Sennet executive vice president, Saft Space & Defense
The peak of the Space Age was in the 1960s, when humans first orbited the earth and landed on the Moon. By the 1990s, with less investment in space exploration, public excitement had waned. The retirement of Nasa’s space shuttle in 2011 marked the end of an era.
However, human beings are not content to stay earthbound and the flurry of activity in recent years suggests the dawn of a new Space Age, one that aims to answer the deepest questions about our existence and allow many of us to become space travelers.